Friday, April 17, 2009

An Artist Is An Artist Is An Artist

As I mentioned earlier this week, I've spent the past week in tech week. I have a very small part in a local community theatre production of Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys. (You can read more about the production here. ) Without a doubt, this has been one of my absolute favorite acting experiences even if I'm only on stage for all of five pages late in the second act.

Rehearsals for this show began while I was still in the midst of rehearsals for the musical I directed at school (I actually auditioned for this play the afternoon that I returned home from State with my speech kids), which I typically avoid doing. I try not to work on concurrent projects because it has the tendency to diffuse my focus. So why did I audition and then actually go so far as to accept the part? Well, I did it for a couple reasons -- a desire for something to do after the musical was over, the opportunity to work with the talent involved in this show (more on that a little later), and a need to keep my acting muscles in shape. I'm a firm believer that, to be a good director, I need to keep in shape as an actor and have that memory of what really goes on onstage. More than once during the rehearsal process of this show, I've been the recipient of speeches very similar to ones I've given my own actors here at the high school -- don't beat yourself up about dropped lines, cheat out, be more likable. The irony is almost delicious, and I suspect my students would find great joy in seeing me be told a lot of the same things I've told them. Being directed makes me a better director.

I've also enjoyed the relief of NOT being the director. I went from being director/designer/producer/mother hen of a spring musical to being JUST an actor. Several other actors in the show are also directors, and the three of us have frequently shared our joy over this freedom from responsibility. When we moved into our performance space earlier this week (and saw our set for the first time), the three of us stood together mumbling over the all the "problems" we saw with the set, things that turned out to be different than what we had rehearsed (doors that opened the opposite way, spaces being a bit smaller than anticipated). For a brief moment, there were three directors standing there griping over all these "errors." Suddenly, we all looked at each other, shrugged, and said, "Oh, well, not out problem" and walked off into the green room to start putting on costumes and make-up.

One of the other things that has made this experience so fruitful and rewarding for me has been the talent I've been able to work with. Besides the director (who is a great friend of mine and was instrumental in helping me become the director I've become as we've enjoyed a five or so year long creative partnership), the cast features two men that would probably shoot me if I called them legendary even though that's a pretty accurate statement. One of them, John, is the man who was my mentor/predecessor here at the high school. I often say that I owe this guy my life. When I was still a pretty young, fresh-faced teacher, he walked into my classroom one morning and said, "Would you be interested in judging at a speech contest for me this weekend?" I spent the next four years by his side, learning the ins and outs of the speech world as well as becoming familiar with the beast of an auditorium that I "inherited" from him. Working with him on this show, seeing him in action, has been a real thrill. There is never a "false" moment from him. Every word, every gesture, every expression is grounded in absolute reality -- even when his character is at his most "fake." He's such an example of making a character a real flesh and blood person onstage, and I strive to achieve such a level of artistry when it's my turn onstage.

Even more thrilling (and surreal) is sharing the stage with the man who was MY director and speech teacher in high school. Larry was one of my high school heroes -- the coolest teacher in school. I once witnessed Larry break up a fight in the halls while still holding a cup of coffee -- a cup of coffee that was forever present in his hand, so much so that I often wondered if it was surgically attached. Over the past several years, we've transitioned rather easily from teacher/student to being colleagues as I've had the chance to work with him in a variety of projects -- being producer to his director, assistant director to his actor, et cetera. But this show is the first time that I've actually had the opportunity to act in the same scene with him. Initially, I was a little nervous about it. I mean, this guy is a powerhouse, and I'm just me! To make it even more awkward and surreal, he has to grab my ass during the scene. There was that moment when the awed 16-year-old girl came out and freaked about the idea of that. Once we got into the rehearsal process, though, it became the most incredible experience ever. Yes, Larry is a powerhouse actor, but he's also the most giving, generous actor I've ever worked with. I feel like there's a real partnership onstage between us. His talent has pushed me to really up my game, so to speak, and really develop a character that can stand on its own. The director the other day complimented me on how my character has developed, saying that she was so funny and tough yet loving at the same time, and I replied, "It's all Larry. I can't imagine this character developing the way she has without him to work opposite." My only regret is that I don't get to spend more time onstage with him because it's just so fun and exhilarating to be engaged in such teamwork. I sense that the others who share the stage with him in this show probably feel the same way. There's this voice in my head every night that chimes in mid-scene, "THIS is what acting is all about, baby."

This brings me to the title of my post which actually connects to a kind of pet peeve of mine. More than once, I've encountered people who dismiss community theatre as if it's something "lesser." Now, I'm not fooling myself into thinking that I or any of my fellow castmates are Broadway bound. This is not a moment of self-delusional grandeur ala Waiting for Guffman. I get frustrated, though, when people turn up their noses at the work of people who do pursue theatre at a community level, as if we're mere hobbyists. To me, community theatre is where theatre is at its most real. These are people who come to theatre for one reason and one reason only -- passion. We LOVE theatre. The people in this show, combined, have devoted close to a century (if you add up the years) of life to local theatre. Some of us have travelled the Midwest to work on shows. We've done Shakespeare, Rogers and Hammerstein, Albee, Miller, Wilder, and more. We've helped instill a passion for theatre in others. We've helped bring theatre to a relatively small community in the Midwest and exposed them to culture and the arts. We take this very seriously. We've given up our time to rehearse, direct, produce, design, and promote theatre. What's the difference between us, then, and the "real" actors/directors/designers/etc. out there? We don't get paid. This isn't a job for us. As Larry once said when we were working on another show together several years ago, "The difference between me and a professional actor is I like to eat." We have day jobs (and fortunately, I found a day job that allows me to still pursue an artistic lifestyle, which is nice in that technically I DO get paid to direct two shows a year), but we then devote our evenings to our art. We don't work with large budgets, which, to me, makes our stage magic all the more impressive; we don't get much in the way of fame and glory, but we do get that release and that satisfaction that comes from flourishing creativity. If that's not REAL art, then I don't know what is.

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